Sense and social distancing

Finding history and famous names on a short break in east Hampshire


Every morning Jane Austen practised the piano. After that, one of her household duties was to help prepare breakfast for her family and any guests who were staying at her home. Twinings tea, toast and muffins or rolls with butter and honey were served.

When breakfast was over, she locked the tea away in a cupboard — it was an expensive treat and the household servants were not to be trusted.

Packed with original artefacts and copies of key pieces, her Hampshire home provides an inspiring insight into the daily life of one of Britain’s greatest writers.

For anyone with any interest in her life, this picturesque country cottage in Chawton is a must-see, and after almost five months, Austen’s former house-turned-museum has now finally reopened to the public.

Everything has been rejigged for Covid-safety, including new signs asking visitors to “keep one Darcy” apart from each other but otherwise you can still enjoy discovering the little details of her life in the place where she lived from 1809 until her death in 1817.

This is one of the key stops for people making a Jane Austen pilgrimage and objects on display include a remarkable quilt, complete with 3,000 diamond-shaped pieces of fabric, which she handstitched with her mother and sister Cassandra.

The display also includes a donkey carriage — the 19th century equivalent of a Vespa — which Jane used for shopping trips to Alton.

Above all, the thrill of visiting is the opportunity to stand right beside the fragile, 12-sided table where she wrote Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion, and also revised Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice and Northanger Abbey.

Austen wrote secretly and would sit next to a window for light. Her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote: “She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small pieces of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper”.

The grander Elizabethan manor of Austen’s brother Edward, named Chawton House, is another essential stop on the Austen groupies’ trail. Again, it feels genuinely moving to see another quiet window spot where she would sit and write her novels.

There’s also the table where she enjoyed countless meals 200 years ago. The menu sounds quite unappealing: salt pig and boiled calf’s head. At least a traditional cheesecake is recorded in a contemporary recipe book.

Besides more Austen artefacts, Chawton House boasts one of the world’s finest libraries of works by women writers.

The house also has an excellent, informative exhibition of can-do women — female writers, pirates, soldiers, abolitionists, balloonists and more who all refused to accept the expected life of playing card games in a drawing room.

Predictably, our two young sons were unimpressed: aged five and seven, the life of Jane Austen means nothing to them yet. And, as a consequence of Covid, some of the child-friendly costume boxes and interactive items have been set aside for the time being.

Fortunately, at nearby Ropley train station, there’s a real children’s treat: the iconic railway footbridge that was used for the Harry Potter film The Philosopher’s Stone (plus The 39 Steps, Elizabethan Express and many other films).

It was removed from Kings Cross station in 2008 and reassembled at Ropley in 2013 as a perfect vantage point to spy steam engines on the Watercress Line.

My boys danced and shrieked with joy from the bridge as they watched trains move about in the yard below. Even better, we were staying at the self-catering Watercress Lodges that are right by the historic Watercress railway line.

So when a train whistle blew, there was time to race down from our lodge patio, skip over the station gate, and watch the trains slowly chug away, steam billowing out.

If you are a rail enthusiast, the Watercress Lodges are hard to beat.The lodges are neatly designed to resemble railway cottages.

The spotlessly clean self-catering holiday retreats are each named after stations on the train line between Alton and Winchester, and all nicely equipped with board games to enjoy while you wait until the next train whistle.

As well as the six lodges, there are fun tipi and safari tents and a good-size, perfectly-flat campsite too, a great base for exploring the surrounding area.

Among its other child-friendly attractions is Butser Ancient Farm, a “practical archaeology” site with Stone Age and Iron Age roundhouses built with authentic and well-researched techniques, as well as a Roman villa.

Along with friendly ancient-breed goats and sheep to feed, the site is packed with enthusiastic educators demonstrating historical crafts such as cordage, thatching, weaving and medicine-making.

All are brimming with trivia and facts guaranteed to fascinate — our boys’ favourite: the Saxons styled their hair with wood-ash and wee.

Hampshire’s other nearby highlights also include Gilbert White’s House. You’ll be forgiven for needing to Google his name — he has been described as Britain’s first ecologist, or the man who turned us into a nation of birdwatchers.

His 1789 book, The Natural History of Selborne, is described as one of the most published books in British history: it has never been out of print and there have been more than 300 editions over the last 200 years.

Charles Darwin said after reading Gilbert White’s work that he did not understand “why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist”.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of his birth and at his fascinating home in Selborne; there are displays explaining his key contribution to Britain’s natural history.

If Gilbert White rings no bells, the name Captain Oates surely will. White’s house was bought by Frank Oates, himself a naturalist who died shortly after becoming the first white man to see Victoria Falls (having, on his way, enjoyed an “excellent supper” of wildebeest steak).

A good portion of the exhibits is dedicated to his more famous cousin, Captain Lawrence Oates, who accompanied Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic.

Our boys were amazed by the film that was made of the Scott expedition playing football on the ice and climbing into their fur sleeping bags. They were also fascinated by Oates’s decision to head out into the blizzard to save his companions.

His famous last words on March 17, 1912 — the day of his 32nd birthday — were: “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

I was not familiar with Scott’s memoir note which said, “We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.”

For another mix of famous names and family-friendliness in which Hampshire seems to specialise, the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is an easy day trip and has now reopened again after lockdown.

Home to the Mary Rose, the National Museum of the Royal Navy, HMS Victory and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, along with eight other attractions, they can all be visited on one ultimate explorer ticket for a virtual taste of life on the ocean wave.

As well as snapping a selfie next to Henry VIII, the museum has recreated the lives of some key figures on the Mary Rose.

Through a combination of osteological and genetic analysis, they have pulled together pictures of characters they believe were the purser, the cook, an archer and a royal bodyguard. Their bones are displayed alongside their possessions, along with images of how they might have looked. 

We also learnt all sorts of titbits about early 19th century naval life on HMS Victory, including Nelson's last day via an audioguide, while actors in costume gave a vivid picture of life on board HMS Warrior, in its Victorian time the fastest and largest battleship in the world.  

The attraction is, without a doubt, the most brilliant family-friendly experience I have had this year. And believe me, keeping everyone happy is no mean feat.


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